Review: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency 1×1 (US: BBC America; UK: Netflix)

American ultra-strange


In the US: Saturdays, 9/8c, BBC America
In the UK: Will air on Netflix in December

Adaptations are a funny old thing, aren’t they? Sometimes you find out more about the person – or country – doing the adaptation than about the original material.

Take Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, a Douglas Adams book written in the 1980s based on scripts he wrote for Doctor Who. It sees the eponymous chubby detective investigating Cambridge colleges, time machines, Electric Monks, the creation of human life and impossible sofas, all in the belief that everything is interconnected and that if he investigates one thing, no matter how seemingly unrelated, he’ll end up solving the original mystery.

The story was adapted for BBC Four six years ago by Misfits‘ Howard Overton, spawning a TV series two years later. How much was it like the book? Not much, despite strip-mining all the good stuff from it, but it was very BBC Four, with bumbling English people and a budget of 50p.

Now we have Max Landis and BBC America’s efforts, which are even less like the book, but do at least have a character of their own. A continuation of sorts to both Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and its follow-up, The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul (judging by the references to both sofas and Thor), it sees Dirk (Samuel Barnett) relocated to Seattle where he’s hired to investigate the death of reclusive millionaire Julian McMahon (Charmed, Fantastic Four, Nip/Tuck, Hunters, Childhood’s End)… by McMahon, six weeks before he’s murdered.

One of the few witnesses to the murder is bellboy Elijah Wood (Wilfred, Lord of the Rings), who has his own problems with his drug dealer landlord, his hallucinating ill sister Hannah Marks (Necessary Roughness), a corgi, and the police who are following him, including Richard Schiff (The West Wing). But when Barnett breaks into Wood’s apartment because it looks interesting, Barnett decides Wood is prime ‘assistant’ material and the two end up holistically intertwined.

It has to be said that the show is odd. Very odd. Very odd at odd moments. Just as everything looks like it’s settled into one form of odd, a time traveller will appear, a holistic assassin will start macheting people at random, four guys in a van will start sucking someone’s soul or bullets will richochet off a pipe and kill the kidnapper in the flat above. New odd is here – get used to it for the next five minutes because there’ll be another one along in a minute. Ooh look, it’s a musical number!

Which is both in keeping with Adams’ writing yet simultaneously quite Landis (cf American Ultra). On top of that, there’s an American quality to it all – Barnett is less a schlubby ne’er do well in a silly leather hat, more an American’s idea of an eccentric Brit via Harry Potter. There’s also a distinct air of ‘improving one’s self’, with Wood’s embracing of Barnett’s holistic philosophy leading to his life becoming significantly better, and the familial side of things with Marks and Wood is almost heartwarming in an American stylee.

I’m not sure whether this Dirk Gently is a huge improvement over the previous one, though. Barnett’s too young to really work as Gently – Schiff would have been perfect – and Wood is basically just doing the bamboozled sidekick routine he perfected in Wilfred. There was also never a point where I felt myself relax into the show enough to genuinely enjoy.

But it does at least feel a lot more like Dirk Gently, despite having nothing at all in common with the books beyond themes, it’s full of what look like potentially interesting ideas and there’s enough life in the supporting cast at least that it’s worth watching for them.